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A Woman in Calcutta

October 12th, 2013 - 8:44 am

I first heard the phrase “dark night of the spirit” at age 18 from my New Testament teacher in college, but I was reminded about it again while coming across a video about a family who nursed a sick baby bunny back to health only to have a hawk swoop down from the nowhere and carry it off. The idea came round again on the wings of a sermon by 92 year old priest describing a nurse who volunteers at a hospice for children dying of cancer.

“She has the kind of faith,” the old priest said, “that has no expectation of hearing prayers answered. You may ask in what her faith consists. At all events it does not require require the absence of doubt, only the absence of despair.” He went on to say that Mother Teresa of Calcutta never spent a day in the last years of her life that were not filled with doubts.

Many people will be quite surprised to learn that the greater the saint, often the greater the doubt. These musings came together with something like the impact of fate when I read the letter sent me by Dr. Bala Ambati linking me to a blog post he wrote describing his trip to the mission of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta in the capacity a volunteer on a medical mission.

Bala is a most unusual doctor. Dr. Ambati graduated from New York University at the age of 13 and Mount Sinai School of Medicine at age 17, becoming the world’s youngest doctor in 1995.

Just as he was about to leave the mission house for home a Mexican volunteer brought in a woman found lying on the floor of Calcutta train station. No one would take her in. An examination showed she tried to commit suicide by drinking kerosene. So most of Ambati’s narrative was devoted to describing his efforts to patch her up with the scanty materials at hand. And he succeeded before he had to leave to catch the plane.

Some days later Dr. Ambati wrote me to say “unfortunately she passed away Tuesday night, 4 days after we met her. I guess all we can do is fight the good fight and leave the rest to God.”

Was it useless? Our answer to the question of whether it is worthwhile to try the apparently useless defines us. We moderns rarely face the problem squarely because it’s hard to accept that there are no happy endings, at least in the way we understand such things. So either we contrive — for the sake of our own sanity — to hide the rough patches or deny that we stand in a terrifying place. A universe where, as Raymond Chandler observed, poisoned cats die behind billboards; where hawks swoop down and snatch up bunnies, and a woman too poor to even poison herself properly dies in Calcutta without anyone even remembering her name.

It’s too hard a question for most of us, and we can be excused for ducking behind the movie seat when the monster shows up. But some are prepared to stare reality full in the face, with neither the consolations of denial nor commonplaces to hide behind and continue to act in the belief that it will all make sense. Some continue despite never being sure if they will ever come out the other side or even if there is another side. Its a kind of a spiritual heroism and that metaphor is a illuminating one.

Audie Murphy wrote about how afraid he was in combat,saying of his Medal of Honor action in the Colmar. “As if under the influence of some drug, I slide off the tank destroyer and, without once looking back, walk down the road through the forest. If the Germans want to shoot me, let them. I am too weak from fear and exhaustion to care.” The idea of Audie Murphy trembling in fear or Mother Teresa assailed by doubt seems odd, until you think about how natural it is.

The state of physical fear is close to the situation described by saints in the Dark Night of Spirit; the sense of no handholds, the vertiginous gloom. Like Murphy they know no one is coming to the rescue; they accept that nothing extraordinary will shield them and yet they go on.

Many of us think of Christianity as a “cheerful” religion, but Andrew Klavan, who is a convert to Christianity, wrote that “for me, one of Christianity’s central assets is that it’s a tragic religion — which is to say, a realistic one. The son of God prayed for release from a dreadful death and his prayer went unfulfilled. That tells you something, something you need to know in order to live with patience and wisdom.”

But I think it is not so much a tragic as one determined not flinch before tragedy; committed to patching up a bunny even though it may be eaten the next moment; or save an unknown woman in Calcutta if only for a while and to see in that no futility whatsoever, no cause for despair. And as to the terror, horror, beauty and wonder of life — why that is what God — or the universe as a synonym for God — is supposed to be like. The Old Testament warned Moses that he could not see the Face of God and live. We know the familiar lines from Exodus:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

To “see God”; to “know the truth” is asking for trouble. Are we sure we want do that?

If faith has an operational meaning it is not far different from a determination to go on. It was striking to read in a Scientific American interview of Gerard ‘t Hooft to glimpse how wide the vistas of scientific inquiry are. Yet the issues confronting modern cosmology have surprisingly ancient names: determinism, free will, entropy, and the possibility of the destruction of information.

We would be right to wonder whether these names are simply terms for things puissant and perilous known of old. Whether the powers and principalities that man would approach or harness are not in fact factions of some battle in the heavens. For there is in scientific or spiritual endeavor an unavoidable element of danger. We just don’t know what will happen after opening doors. Of physical theory ‘t Hooft said, “the suspicion is, probably, answers will come as a package. You can’t just solve one problem without touching the others; they’re probably related. Maybe you have to solve all problems in one giant stroke. If that’s the case, then you have a long fight ahead of us, because it’s going to be very difficult.”

All real knowledge is dangerous. We’ve managed to disremember that. But if the last century’s atomic bomb has not convinced us then the even the greater discoveries coming thick and fast in this one must. We could be the bunny and the hawk behind the next door. And yet we are curiously unwilling to look either scientific or spiritual reality in the face, stuck as it were between the Scylla of inevitable knowledge the Charybdis of fear; wishing we could uninvent the Bomb, nerve gas, the ubiquitous wire tap, the killer robot … and yet unable to do. Wishing we could not have children to spare them this; wishing we weren’t here.

But we are here; and perhaps the only question is whether to proceed with our eyes open or have a nervous breakdown as a civilization; and if to continue then answer especially in times of tragedy and suffering whether it is worth going on.

There was one curious observation that John of the Cross made about the Dark Night of the Spirit. He argued that man must eventually meet the devil in “the high places” of Creation and yet the one place man can hide from Satan was in doubt. “The soul’s journey, consequently, is not only hidden and freed from the obstacle these faculties in their natural weakness can occasion, but also from the devil, who without these faculties of the sensory part cannot reach the soul or know what is happening within it. Accordingly, the more spiritual and interior the communication and the more removed it is from the senses, the less the devil understands it.”

And sometimes I think the history of True Believers of the last century shows us it is sometimes helpful to doubt — if only to preserve free will — and by these curious paths advance to where we know not.


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Top Rated Comments   
Those who are not afraid are either ignorant of the risk or incapable of valuing what is at risk. If their loss means nothing to them and they do not care if it means something to others then they are insane. What value is their sacrifice? The firemen who walked into the World Trade Center that day knew they were loved and that they loved. They knew what would be lost. Richard Rescorla knew what he was doing as he sang to calm people that day, as he had sung to his troops in Vietnam.

If you are not free to choose then what value is there in your choice? If you have perfect knowledge of good and evil and the rewards or punishments to come then your choice means nothing. To be the god or ruler over slaves, for that is what those who are not free to choose are, is pointless.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
--how nice of you to say, HM. "Follow the Ninth" was in the bucket as it spooled up the well of Wretchard's prose. Old man Beethoven was frankly after the ineffable --as Wretchard is here, trying to get to a place on the hillside to watch. Beethoven had a faded name, it had been ten years since his previous symphony. He attended the opening in Vienna, as conductor, but that was for mercy --for he was too deaf, and the actual conductor stood nearby. The old maestro, in poor health and failing, and his ninth symphony, and in the final of the four movements, the finale of the last movement of the last symphony, he astonishes the world by revealing, at the pinnacle, the people, a choir of people singing the human voice.

Daniel Barenboim and his orchestra of highly talented, energized young Arabs and Jews --Israelis and Palestinians (the volatile mix deliberately so, as one of many uplifting backstories here) --have produced what many say is the best 9th on the internet. How can these young people do that, one wonders. Maybe it's partly that the cameras are in the pit, you see who is playing what, in close up, the actual making of the music. And talent is talent, regardless of time in the biz.

The first six plus minutes are a remarkable interview of the conductor by BBC's Katie Derham, where she lucidly and everything-you-like-about-the-British poses many of the same questions Wretchard and commenters are asking on this thread. And Barenboim, not a trace of haughty conductor in his soul, answers as if in a slow day at the coffee shop, with no objective but to approach the simple truth.

Anyhoo, try the first six minutes, then if intrigued, go for headphones and get ready for a trip. BTW, Schiller's poem, sung in German, is subtitled onscreen in English as in a film. The translation, no doubt stilted as German to English will be, adds that quirk to the soaring chorale --and some entirely new thing happens, at least it was entirely new to old backwoods yrs truly. If I had to put it into words: As i watch and listen, i see an innocent person, a good hearted simple being, who begins to hear a universal harmony and is overcome, and begins asking nature, the universe, "can you hear it? can you hear it?" And your heart flutters and quakes, because that person you're watching was once you, and is beckoning to you to unlearn, unlearn, and come back, come back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vypj9NCINdM

.


1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Another of your profound threads Richard.

As to Moses in the cleft of the rock, he could see the Lord's presence only as it departed, and even then suffered a kind of radiation effect afterwards. We cannot see God's hand in advance; only after it passes by.

While going Biblical I would like to offer a partial take on Cain and Abel. Without prompting, Cain offered a sacrifice only to be trumped by Abel offering the finest of his flock. God was pleased by Abel's sacrifice and Cain's face fell. What God says to Cain afterwards I interpret as follows: "Don't expect a reward for every good deed. Do them for their own sake. If you don't live by this model then sin is always at the door ready to pounce." Sadly, Cain's envy and resentment of Abel's reward overtook both of them.

Yes, doubt but not despair. One of my teachers said that despair is the only emotion forbidden to physicians. But in doubt there is room for humility. Doubt does not have to lead to inaction or indecisiveness. One can be appreciative of uncertainty yet still move forward. But without doubt there is only arrogance.

Thanks again for a beautiful thread.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (42)
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“Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God- so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing- straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

H. Melville
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wretchard, thank you, another wonderful essay !

on the question of "whether it is worthwhile to try the apparently useless"

the sermon i heard this morning touched on this. Our pastor made the point that when God is seen as small, and people are big, and idols are big, what is judged to be "realistic" and "practical" is totally different from where God is huge, people are small, and idols are nothing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Cloud Mind is smart because it has billions of intelligent agents
gathering experience about physical life down here at the bottom of a gravity well.

Where is Heaven? 50 miles, straight up.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step".

Okay, who is willing to step forward to volunteer to fix this mess?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLLcUR679p0
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In OT news, and of no particular importance at all:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/10/russias-online-comment-propaganda-army/280432/

According to Lvova, each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.

Employees at the company, located at 131 Lakhtinsky Prospekt, were paid 1,180 rubles ($36.50) for a full 8-hour day and received a free lunch, Lvova wrote.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Some days later Dr. Ambati wrote me to say 'unfortunately she passed away Tuesday night, 4 days after we met her. I guess all we can do is fight the good fight and leave the rest to God.' "

There seems to be an entirely appropriate measure of Bahala Na in this good doctor's sense of his role with her, likewise in so many of these reflective comments.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Those who are not afraid are either ignorant of the risk or incapable of valuing what is at risk. If their loss means nothing to them and they do not care if it means something to others then they are insane. What value is their sacrifice? The firemen who walked into the World Trade Center that day knew they were loved and that they loved. They knew what would be lost. Richard Rescorla knew what he was doing as he sang to calm people that day, as he had sung to his troops in Vietnam.

If you are not free to choose then what value is there in your choice? If you have perfect knowledge of good and evil and the rewards or punishments to come then your choice means nothing. To be the god or ruler over slaves, for that is what those who are not free to choose are, is pointless.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice."-John 18:37

Notice how He doesn't bear witness to the word, but to the Truth.
Is this a problem or am I seeing something thats not there.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wittgenstein on faith :

Queer as it sounds : The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this : _not_, however, because it concerns `univeral truths of reason'! Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief. This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (ie. lovingly). _That_ is the certainty charactrerizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something _else_.

A believer's relation to these narratives is _neither_ the relation to historical truth (probability), _nor yet_ that to a theory consisting of `truths of reason.' There is such a thing. - (We have quite different attitudes even to different species of what we call fiction!)

I read : ``No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.'' - And it is true : I cannot call him _Lord_; because that says nothing to me. I could call him ``the paragon,' `God' even - or rather, I can understand it when he is called thus ; but I cannot utter the word ``Lord'' with meaning. _Because I do not believe_ that he will come to judge me ; because _that_ says nothing to me. And it could say something to me, only if I lived _completely_ differently.

What inclines even me to believe in Christ's Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. - If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. _He is dead and decomposed._ In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer _help_ ; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, - what I need is _certainty_ - not wisdom, dreams or speculation - and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my _heart_, my _soul_, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say : Only _love_ can believe the Resurrection. Or : It is _love_ that believes the Resurrection. We might say : Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection ; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, _redemption_. Holding fast to _this_ must be holding fast to that belief. So what that means is : first you must be redeemed and hold on to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) - then you will see that you are holding fast to this belief. So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then _everything_ will be different and it will be `no wonder' if you can do things that you cannot do now. (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently than can a standing man.)

_Culture and Value_ p.32-33 (1937)



1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Derrida says that only antheists can pray.

For a believer, a prayer is just a pizza order.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
For a believer whose god is a "let's make a deal" kind of deity, this may be so. For a disciple of the Biblical deity, decidedly not. For example, the friends of Daniel responding to the king's command to worship his idol:

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=daniel%203:16-18&version=ESV

and to the tempter's appeal to Psalm 91, the response is basically: the promise applies, until it does not. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%204:9-13,%20Psalm%2091&version=ESV

The Triune God is not a "let's make a deal" kind of being.
http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2026:39&version=ESV

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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